Insurers deny claims based on questionable cell tower data


AP

DAVE COLLINS, Associated Press

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — It took Jaclyn Bentley nearly three years to prove she didn’t burn her house down for the insurance money, allegations she and her lawyer say were born of the junk practice of analyzing cellphone tower data.

She was camping with her husband and co-workers at least 17 miles from her Iowa home in May 2014, she says, when it burned down. An investigator for State Farm Fire and Casualty Co. said cell tower data showed Bentley’s phone was 5 to 12 miles from the campsite in the direction of her home just after the fire was reported — the suggestion being she could have been heading back to camp after starting the blaze.

Her claim was denied, and she was arrested on arson and insurance fraud charges. But she was acquitted after questioning State Farm’s analysis of the tower data, and she has a lawsuit pending against the company for failing to pay her claim.

Despite acquittals like Bentley’s and expert testimony that cellphone tower data should not be used to pinpoint people’s locations, insurance companies continue to use the information to deny claims by casting doubt that customers were where they said they were. The problem, experts say, is that a cellphone can be up to 20 miles away when it “pings,” or connects with, a tower.

“I’ve gone through … hell,” said Bentley, 37, of Clinton, Iowa, who cares for people with brain injuries and mental illness. “It’s ridiculous what happened. You’re innocent until proven guilty. I’ve never felt like I was treated like I was innocent. As far as the insurance company was concerned, I was guilty.”

State Farm does not comment on pending litigation or specific claims, spokesman Justin Tomczak said.

“We handle each claim on its merits and conduct a diligent investigation to determine what we owe under the policy,” he said. “That work can include many things, including phone records, that become pertinent to completing our investigation. While I cannot comment on a specific claim, I can tell you that we rarely obtain phone records.”

The records can be obtained only by a court order or a customer’s consent.

A private investigator, Tim Wilcox, chief executive of International Investigators Inc. in Indianapolis, said he believes cell tower data analysis can be fairly accurate in tracking someone’s movements, within a half-mile. He said the information is just one of many pieces of evidence needed for a strong fraud case.

Michael Cherry has testified in successful cases to free people who were imprisoned based in part on cell tower evidence. Among the early design team members of the Apollo 11 moon trip, Cherry is now chief executive of Cherry Biometrics, a computer and cellphone data analysis firm in Falls Church, Virginia.

Phones can be miles away when they ping towers, Cherry said, because calls are not simply routed to the nearest cell tower or the cell tower with the strongest signal. Rather, a number of factors decide which tower handles the call, including which has the clearest signal and is the most cost-effective, he said.